September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Last year, not long after entering Peterson Middle School as an accelerated sixth grader, Wendy Gregg hit the wall. “If you were late or your homework was incomplete, you got a gold note, and three gold notes was detention,” says the formerly perfectionist 11-year-old from Sunnyvale, Calif. “I had seen detention in movies, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought only weirdos got it, or people who smoked.”

Wendy never actually did time herself, but despite three hours a night of homework, she soon saw her usual A’s replaced by B minuses. “I felt pretty stupid,” she says, recalling how mortified she was at being assigned to write about why she had fallen off the honor roll. She began to break out in cold sweats and often had stomachaches. In her class photo, says principal Bob Runyon, “Wendy was the only one not looking at the camera. She was staring off to the side.”

In January, when Wendy’s “scary feelings” were diagnosed as anxiety attacks, her parents—Jenny, 37, a homemaker, and Bill, 41, an aerospace engineer—did a major rethink. “My husband and I decided to pull her out of the pressure cooker,” says Jenny. The Greggs took Wendy out of Peterson and home-schooled her for a semester. They reprioritized, making more time for her piano lessons, basketball and I Love Lucy videos. Says her mother: “We reclaimed a lot of her time.”

Last month a buoyant Wendy returned to Peterson as a seventh grader in a standard curriculum. Whenever she starts to tense up, she pulls out the “stress kit” that she made in her local Girl Scout troop—a white paper bag painted with a lake and stocked with Silly Putty (for squeezing out tension), notes from friends, an origami bird and her favorite blue nail polish. “Last year I would have been scared,” she says of returning to school. “This time I was so excited I couldn’t stop smiling.”

Wendy’s story is hardly unique. From Portland to Peoria, experts say, plenty of kids are nearing meltdown from stress. The evidence is obvious: third graders hauling 25-lb. book bags to class; 12-year-olds juggling their soccer schedules on PalmPilots; a growing number of teens teaming up with $200-an-hour business consultants to teach them CEO-style time-management skills.

According to studies by such groups as the Centers for Disease Control and the American Institute of Stress, nearly half of kids report stress symptoms from headaches to short tempers; children as young as 9 are now experiencing anxiety attacks; and from 1980 to 1997 the number of 10-to-14-year-olds who committed suicide increased 109 percent. In an era when 40 percent of school districts have eliminated recess and 21 percent of teens rate a lack of time with their parents as a top concern, children risk becoming what a paper by the Harvard University admissions office recently termed “dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp.”

The source of the trouble is easy to track: anxiety-ridden moms and dads. Determined to get their children into increasingly competitive colleges and a tight job market down the road, today’s parents are demanding more academic rigor (and thus more homework), even in grade school. To further beef up future résumés—and, often, to keep the kids occupied while both parents hold down jobs—they’re also cramming after-school hours with extracurricular activities. The upshot, says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York City psychiatrist and author, is that “parenting has become the most competitive sport in America.” Adds Georgia Witkin, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine: “It’s as if an epidemic is spreading from us to them.”

The good news is that some families—and organizations—have begun to fight back. Last September, for instance, the Girl Scouts introduced a Stress Less badge, awarded so far to more than 60,000 8-to-11-year-old girls (including Wendy Gregg). The entire town of Ridgewood, N.J., encouraged its citizens to clear their calendars for a “Ready, Set, Relax!” family night last spring. In Austin 6-to-12-year-olds can enroll in a program that teaches them painting, dancing and acting—without the pressure to achieve that often accompanies such extracurriculars. “Once in a while we get a call from a parent saying they want their child to be in a ‘real’ production, like Oliver! or Annie,” says Jeanne Henry, the city’s cultural arts education supervisor. “We explain that if the kids come here after school and feel like doing nothing, that’s okay. They can do nothing.”

Public schools are joining the stress-busting movement as well—and not only in affluent communities. When teachers in San Francisco noticed in 1997 that students were stressed out, they started teaching yoga. Today Cathy Klein, 30, offers it to her second graders at the inner-city Daniel Webster Elementary School. “Yoga calms me,” says 6-year-old Filoi Sevatase, a regular at the twice-weekly, 20-minute sessions. “I like doing it when I’m mad or sad, like when my sister hits me or makes me cry.” That relaxation technique is also on the curriculum in Atlanta preschools, where 4-year-olds learn to center themselves with the help of a Copee Bear hand puppet. Reports program director Gloria Elder: “Ninety-five percent of their teachers say it helps.”

But the biggest push comes from parents like Bill Doherty, 57, a social sciences professor and father of two who lives in Roseville, Minn. In 1999, when he began noticing “6-year-olds with daily planners,” Doherty helped launch Putting Family First, a local organization dedicated to reclaiming family time. One of the group’s first seal-of-approval certificates went to the conference-winning Wayzata High School football team coached by Brad Anderson, 38. The team has long refused to bench players when they skip practice for family obligations. Josh Rounds, 18, a senior middle linebacker, says that when he missed the first week of practice because of a family vacation, “it was no problem. I got right back into football when I came home.”

Anderson says his own family has experienced scheduling overload firsthand. “As a parent you want to provide opportunities for your kids—gymnastics, swimming, church choir, Brownies, piano lessons. But my wife and I had to sit down with our PalmPilots to figure out how we were going to get them from one thing to another.” Instead the couple decided to pare back, limiting their two girls to no more than two after-school activities each. Now, he says, “the kids’ favorite thing is family night—playing a game of Battleship together or going to an outdoor concert.”

In the nearby town of Plymouth, the Peterschmidt family came to a similar decision three years ago, when they almost lost themselves in a blur of frenetic activity. “I can’t bear to look at the calendar from that year. It was crazy,” says mother Margaret, 45, who goes by the nickname Bugs. “Every night we’d say, ‘What’s next?’ before running to get Max to his church group or Betsy to soccer.” Max, 14, who is just starting ninth grade at Wayzata High, also shudders at the memory: “Trumpet, Scouts, violin, advanced math, church youth group, recreational soccer. And I was depressed because I felt like I had no time to do anything at all.” Adds Betsy, now 11, who was equally overscheduled: “I needed a break.”

The kids weren’t alone in feeling stressed out. In the fall of 1999 a chronically tired Bugs went to the doctor, who found that she had walking pneumonia. During a week of mandatory bed rest, she recalls, “my kids gave me all kinds of stress-relieving gifts—an aromatherapy candle, a little fountain for the kitchen counter. It was a clear message.”

One that she and her husband, Eric, 47, a marketing director for Honeywell, finally heeded. Today, after curtailing their schedules, the Peterschmidts are enjoying a newfound tranquility. “Life is so much better now,” says Bugs. “But it’s like finding religion or quitting smoking: You don’t realize how good you feel until you’ve done it.” These days dinner’s on the table at 6:15—no phone calls allowed. Family members talk to one another. The kids roast marshmallows and play flashlight tag—”like tag but with light,” Betsy explains. “And it’s in the dark, so it’s much funner.”

Each week, Max has a violin lesson, while Betsy takes piano from a teacher who comes to the house. “We don’t have huge blowups like we used to,” says Bugs. As for Peterschmidt père: “When I come home from work,” marvels Eric, “the first thing my son says is, ‘Dad, how was your day?’ Isn’t that neat?”

Susan Schindehette

Joanne Fowler in Sunnyvale, Margaret Nelson in Plymouth and Jill Westfall in Atlanta

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